POLITICS

Senators unveil legislation to lift all travel and banking restrictions to Cuba; critics blast move

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 27:  A street is seen through a car window a day after Pope Benedict XVI held a historic mass in the city on March 27, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, conducted a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA - MARCH 27: A street is seen through a car window a day after Pope Benedict XVI held a historic mass in the city on March 27, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba. Fourteen years after Pope John Paul II visited Cuba, Pope Benedict is making his first trip to the communist country. Benedict, who arrived from Mexico, conducted a mass in the city of Santiago de Cuba first followed by a mass in Havana before leaving on the 28th. Tensions are high in Cuba between dissidents and the government as activists hope the international exposure of the Papal visit will result in renewed attention to their struggle for greater freedoms. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  (2012 Getty Images)

A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators unveiled legislation Thursday that, if approved, would be the beginning of the end of the U.S.-Cuba embargo.

The proposed legislation lifts all travel restrictions to Cuba, striking at a core part of the decades-long ban. The measure, called the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, would also lift banking restrictions linked to travel to Cuba.

Eight Republicans and Democrats, including Sens. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican – both longtime opponents of the embargo – announced their legislation at a noon press conference in Washington D.C.

Flake, who first introduced the measure 15 years ago, seeking a lifting of the restrictions, said: "A lot of Americans will be able to travel freely as a part of this legislation. Some say we ought to get something for this. This [restriction] is a prohibition on Americans, not Cubans. Americans ought to travel where they want to."

Cuban President Raul Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Dec. 17 that they would move toward renewing full diplomatic relations by reopening embassies in each other's countries. The two governments held negotiations in Havana last week to discuss both the reopening of embassies and the broader agenda of re-establishing normal relations.

Obama has loosened the trade embargo with a range of measures designed to increase economic ties with Cuba and increase the number of Cubans who don't depend on the communist state for their livelihoods.

The Obama administration says removing barriers to U.S. travel, remittances and exports to Cuba is a tactical change that supports the United States' unaltered goal of reforming Cuba's single-party political system and centrally planned economy.

The Senate legislation would end restrictions on all travel from the United States to Cuba, for the first time in nearly six decades allowing any American to visit the island, which is just 90 miles from Florida, or a roughly 30 minute plane trip from Miami.

Next week, a similar bill to end the travel restrictions will be introduced in the House of Representatives, according to Reuters.

Reps. Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican, and Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, are sponsors of the House measure.

Hearings on Cuba are also taking place next week in the House and Senate.

The lifting of travel restrictions, though one part of the embargo, is a pivotal part and would for the first time remove a huge barrier between Americans and people in Cuba.

At the press conference, Flake said he would like to see the embargo completely lifted.

"Why not go for the whole thing? I would favor lifting the embargo myself," he said.

While lifting the embargo, to be sure, has ample bipartisan support, there is also firm opposition to doing so by many Republicans and elected officials with a substantial number of Cuban-American constituents.

Opponents of lifting the embargo say that paving the way for more tourism will only pour more money into the Castro regime, which needs new sources of revenue, especially since its benefactor, Venezuela, is struggling economically.

They say that Cuba has been receiving tourists from plenty of places around the world, including Europe and Canada, but that the regime is so repressive that mere exposure by the Cuban people to outsiders is not enough to generate democratic change there.

"This lopsided acquiescence to the Castro brothers is a huge mistake,” said Raul Mas, a Cuban-American political analyst based in Miami. “It will only ensure the survival of their regime. Congress should quash it until Raul and Fidel Castro agree to take substantive steps to bring freedom to the Cuban people. The existing framework is a farce."

Cuban-American members of Congress have vehemently opposed normalizing relations with Cuba and easing any part of the embargo.

“Bills to lift the embargo are nothing new in Congress," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, in a statement to Fox News Latino. "While some members of the House or Senate may think that American trade with Cuba will bring democracy, the reality is that the rest of the world has travelled and traded with Cuba with no democratic result."

"Instead of giving the regime a veritable goodie bag of concessions, Congress should remain focused on pressuring the Castro regime and standing with the Cuban people and pro-democracy leaders.”

The sponsors of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act said they are aware that their measure would not generate automatic democratic reform in Cuba.

"I'm not suggesting we're going to see Cuba change overnight," said Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. "We're going to see an acceleration of debate."

Outside the political arena, many business groups, including agricultural employers, want the embargo to end – they’re eager to export to Cuba.

Many Americans also want to travel to the long-forbidden island, a favorite vacation place before the Communist revolution. Many Americans have gone there illegally, through third countries.

On a more ideological level, many supporters say that the more Cuban people are exposed to tourists, they more they may feel emboldened to push for democratic change.

Sen. John Boozman, an Arizona Republican and a sponsor of the measure, said: "The way you change societies is through personal relationships."

Ric Herrero, a Cuban-American who heads #CubaNow, a nongovernmental organization pushing for closer ties to the island, agreed.

“Americans are the best ambassadors of our values and lifting all barriers to the flow of contacts between the U.S. and the Cuban people is in the best interests of both nations," Herrero said to Fox News Latino. “There is no better way to help shape the future of Cuba than to play an active and constructive role in its present.”

This story contains material from The Associated Press.

Chad Pergram, Fox News senior producer, contributed to this story.

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.